The weeb community’s favorite holiday ended last Monday. Anime Expo has only gotten bigger every year, and while the numbers have not yet released, I wouldn’t be surprised if attendance jumped thousands above last year’s 110,000. Watch out, Comic Con. We’re catching up!
Plenty of new information came out of panels about new projects and returning ones, such as the upcoming KonoSuba movie, or Katsuhiro Otomo’s new sci-fi epic, Orbital Era. Otomo is the genius behind Akira (1988). Even though I didn’t go this year, that doesn’t mean we don’t have something vital to talk about— vital to the health and happiness of anime and its fans!
Isekai has been an oversaturated genre for some time now. Personally, I’ve become allergic because so many start off strong only to go downhill. As a result, I scarcely enjoy shounen-style anime about characters entering a game world. However, I do have respect for those few that accomplish something meaningful for the genre.
Reeee!-Warning: CONTROVERSIAL STATEMENT AHEAD (!!!)
And that’s prompted me to revisit what is perhaps the most important isekai: Sword Art Online, popularly referred to as SAO. While many otaku may not consider the series isekai proper, it still places characters into a fantasy landscape with the palpable consequences of reality. For all intents and purposes, it’s isekai.
SAO for the Uninitiated
For those unfamiliar, SAO’s premise is akin to a deadly escape room from which players cannot leave— at least, not with their lives. On top of not being able to log out, if a player dies in-game, they die in real life. Someone must first beat the game before anyone else can log out. Spoiler alert: the main character, Kirito, does. By the end of the first arc, 2 years have passed with roughly 60% of surviving players waking up fatigued from the paralysis-inducing VR headsets that had kept them in-game. Meanwhile, the game world erases from SAO’s servers.
This covers Aincrad, the first arc of the series; and truth be told, that’s all I’m referencing from here on out. Anything after and I risk becoming an assassination target. So put away your disaster magnets. I’m only discussing Aincrad.
Truth be told, SAO is as generic as isekai gets—no unique spin and no originality. It’s easy to hate for its wasted potential, awful character development, and a paltry plot to boot; or, if for nothing else, then Kirito taming his haremesque horde of female friends into one-dimensional subservient admirers with his bland emulsion of seemingly beta-male personality and alpha-male action. But that’s probably just the same as less than stellar character development anyway. Well, heck…
But by golly let’s not lie to ourselves! SAO is iconic by no fluke of its own, and its status as the third most popular anime on MyAnimeList with a membership of 1.3 million members speaks for itself.
It singlehandedly launched isekai into the forefront of otaku culture and anime consumption. It introduced us to VR headsets before many of us even knew what they were, and it garnered a notoriety that showed us how good shows following in its footsteps could be.
From the beloved KonoSuba, to the highly praised No Game No Life, even Overlord, it’s difficult to imagine we’d see as many anime adaptations of isekai web novels as we have if not for SAO’s immense popularity upon its 2012 release.
Aincrad introduced us to a range of increasingly relevant topics, including but not limited to game addiction, cyber terrorism, or on a larger spectrum, technology controlling our lives.
On a positive note, it showed us having real feelings for fictional
characters is valid. Remember Yui?
I know her death was a deus-ex-machina and a half, but were you not devastated? Did you not cry?!
I did. I did. And even if you didn’t, remember chipmunk-kun?
Just kidding, no one remembers chipmunk-kun. *Turns around and cries*
But we’re not here to get sentimental. This is a different kind of viewing. So let’s catch us a bit of closure by putting aside our rabid discontent and look at how SAO has not only influenced isekai, or anime, but has permeated otaku and normie culture alike.
Ikimashou! (Let’s Go!)
Entry Plug? I Meant Gateway Drug!
It’s no secret Sword Art Online tends to be on the more accessible side of gateway isekai. Show Overlord to a normie friend and the intense sexual pandering risks a lost recruit for the anime army. Put on Log Horizon and your friend might flee back to Game of Thrones, god forbid. Moe political thrillers are an acquired taste.
Give your buddy-kun Sword Art Online, and you might stay friends. Just kidding! But it does cover a range of interesting topics besides the ones I mentioned, such as the etiquette of online interaction versus real world interaction, even if some of it does have soft-core fan service titillations.
One Small Step for Man; One Giant Leap for Mankind
SAO changed isekai forever by placing its characters in conceivable circumstances. While many isekai predecessors dropped their characters into fantasy worlds without rhyme or reason, SAO achieved a self-awareness that wouldn’t ignore its characters’ inescapable predicament. This was huge. It started tackling a deeper issue of people willingly trapping themselves in game worlds without considering the consequences of entertainment escapism:
What happens once you can’t escape from the escapism? We all have to go back to reality at some point.
What’s the difference between trapping yourself in a game of your own volition and the game master trapping you?
Furthermore, we were forced to contemplate what we enjoy games for. Are MMOs such as League of Legends just mindless entertainment, and if not, what’s healthy about playing them that you can’t get as healthily elsewhere?
And how much are we taking real life for granted?
In such aspects, Sword Art Online made us rethink how complaisant many of us had become by playing video games, which leads to the next point:
To what length are we willing to go in order to make our lives easier? The players of Sword Art Online couldn’t simply enjoy themselves. Death is a large price to pay, but so is time. The players spent 2 years inside their VR headsets. We all require good ol’ fashioned fun, but many people are now starting to see the psychological affects of MMORPG game addiction first hand. Nowhere is this more apparent than mobile games with microtransactions.
Such games have addictive gameplay mechanics and user interfaces because they are intentionally designed that way. This drives profit and keeps companies in business, but it neglects the health of the consumer and especially concerns younger kids and teens who may unwittingly seek the high of performing better in a game with the aid of dollar items and boosters. Unlike the days of the arcade when children would simply stop playing and walk away once they ran out of money, children these days have their parents’ credit cards, and just because Mom or Dad says no, that doesn’t mean Kid-kun won’t snatch the credit card in the middle of the night to keep playing.
Getting back to Sword Art Online, however, that 2-year period spent inside the VR headsets probably resonated with a lot of people who have asked themselves if they are playing games at optimal moments or if they are missing out on precious time with loved ones.
Now this is a big one. At the beginning of Sword Art Online after the game master reveals no one can leave, the VR headset’s calibration and camera data process and transpose every person’s physical likeness onto his or her playable character, extirpating perhaps the most important degree of separation between identity and anonymity online. Let’s make a realer-world comparison. Put your hands in the air if you own a Roomba. Oh yeah-Oh yeah-OH YEAH! You like games, as does your little Wall-e mop. The one it plays is called “collect measurement data of your home for iRobot Co….“
Seriously. If that’s not creepy, then tell me what is. Sometimes, we just need to read the fine print. And that’s something especially important when playing games that may collect data on your spending habits, the kinds of items you buy, how old you are, where you live, what you’re doing in the restroom, and the way your mouth loosely hangs ajar while drool pools out your mouth onto the pillow. How big is the circumference of your drool pool?! Companies want to know!!! Just kidding, especially about those last two or three…but they may be interested in what time of day you play games.
That’s just a guess. However, this would optimize when they choose to send the good ol’ daily push notification to your phone at a time you’d be likely to see it. Of course, data collection from desktop gaming follows you around less than your phone does. Just never forget, most MMORPGs still track your login and logout times, and how you spend your time in-game. This evidently factored into the time-frame the creator and game master of SAO chose to keep his players from escaping. He calculated when most players, about 10,000, would be logged into the server.
Phew! That’s enough on heavy topics. Let’s get back to the remaining isekai stuff.
Successful Passion Project
Creator Reki Kawahara initially wrote Sword Art Online for a competition but kept writing it nonetheless and publishing it online for free until going pro with Accel World, which is funny, because no one really cares about or remembers it. Ironically, Sword Art Online exploded into what has been his most popular work since 2012, creating a rabid fandom craving more than what he had to offer. Isekai web novel entries exploded after that.
One such beneficiary was Tappei Nagatsuki, creator of Re:Zero, who hitched a ride on the back of Sword Art Online’s success hoping for an anime adaptation. In fact, isekai is the least likely genre of web novel authors get contracted for since they are so abundant. Anyone has a shot at making it big by writing one as a passion project so long as they create a compelling hook.
Room for Improvement
However, Sword Art Online left a lot wanting. As mentioned earlier, the plot was paltry and the character development bad, especially when the storytelling devolved in the following Fairy Dance arc. These flaws incentivized up-and-coming authors to do better. According to an OtaQuest article, Tappei Nagatsuki said:
“one common trait of fantasy world stories is that the main character dominates his surroundings with absurd power, so I thought I’d write a story where the main character [Subaru] is weak.”
While Subaru may be one such character, Kirito is not. Kirito dominates with an immense power, has a flawless complexion and a perfect personality. There’s no room for his growth as a character. And lucky for us, we’ve seen better isekai with better main characters because of it. The best way to explain this is through subversions, which usually provide the compelling hook for holding an audience’s interest.
For example, No Game No Life subverts the overpowered main character trope by playing it up for comedic effect. Re:Zero subverts the genre by making respawn checkpoints the crux of psychological instability. Every time Subaru dies, he respawns at an earlier checkpoint with his memories intact, except no one else remembers.
Luckily, shows like No Game No Life and Re:Zero keep us coming back to see what’s in store for the future of isekai. And I’m sure many of us wouldn’t want it any other way. No matter how much we fall out of love with one, something else will come along that reminds us why the time we spend watching them is worthwhile. And while we may still harness strong feelings toward Sword Art Online, I hope this eased some tension if it didn’t quite provide closure to our view of it beforehand.
If you’re a long-time fan of the series, the second half of the SAO Alicization arc will air this October. Considering the first half of the arc was simulcasted on Crunchyroll, there’s a high chance this one will be, too.
Sword Art Online: Alicization – War of Underworld continues following Kirito and Asuna on their perilous adventures. Walking home one evening, they chance upon a familiar foe. Kirito is mortally wounded in the ensuing fight and loses consciousness. When he comes to, he discovers that he has made a full-dive into the Underworld with seemingly no way to escape. He sets off on a quest, seeking a way back to the physical world once again.
Let us know what you think about Sword Art Online, and if you attended Anime Expo this year, tell us about your experience in the comments below. Just don’t forget to get outside and enjoy yourselves this beautiful summer. I’m off to hit the beach, so I’ll catch all you dashingly dorky nerds on the flipside. Kawabunga!